The voices that shaped my earliest religious memories were well intended. They passed on to me the understandings and traditions that had been handed to them by their parents and grandparents, pastors and Sunday school teachers. I say this as a preamble, a disclaimer of sorts, because I do value those people and places that shaped my earliest religious imagination. I have many wonderful memories of many wonderful people, and I wouldn’t trade them. They shaped me. They continue to shape me. And I am grateful.
However, looking back there were two things that I was handed, things that were central to our way of approaching faith, God, and people, things that I now see as problematic. First, I was given fear as a primary lens through which to experience God. To be sure, I have spent too much of my life fearing God; not in the “reverencing or honoring” way, but in the “I am terrified of you,” way. If God is the source of your terror, to whom can you turn? Further, God always seemed distant, angry, and disapproving, and there was no real way to know you were ok with God. After all, you could die at any moment, and any unrepented of sin would damn you to Hell for all eternity. I can vividly remember being in elementary school and being terrified to go to sleep. What if I don’t wake up? Meeting God didn’t seem to be an inviting option. I would fall asleep listening to cassette tapes: We Are the World, the theme from Ghostbusters, and Elvis were favorites. They helped me calm down; they assuaged my fear for a moment.
Then, there was the second thing I was given: certainty. I was taught not just to know, but to be certain about what I believed. Because having the certainty of our convictions was seen to be synonymous with the accuracy of our convictions. Doubt was the enemy, a chink in the armor through which Satan would wreck our faith. Our interpretation of the Bible had to be defended, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Actually, clinging to certainty in the face of evidence to the contrary was commended. Being sure, being certain, were essentially the equivalent of being faithful.
To say my understanding of faith has changed drastically over the past fifteen years would be a massive understatement. Sometimes people I once knew more familiarly will tell me they are praying for me, but I don’t think they mean it in the encouraging way, but in the “I pray you’ll get right with the Lord before it’s too late,” way. And, as you might imagine, my relationship to fear and certainty have also changed. Now I understand that one of these things we don’t need, and one we can’t have.
We don’t need fear, friends. We just don’t. Fear doesn’t bring out the best in us. Fear elicits our worst. Fear causes us to exclude “those people,” because they are unfamiliar, have different skin color, speak a different language, or hold a different perspective. Fear causes us to attack those we exclude, because the only way to be safe and secure is to strike preemptively against our “enemies.” Fear ultimately paralyzes us. We can’t move forward into new opportunity or progress because fear has convinced us that it is safer to shrink back than to step forward. The writer of 1 John puts it like this:
We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV)
And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction…